Out of Africa

Paul Boughton

South Africa has considerable mineral reserves and a long-established mining industry making a substantial contribution to the national economy. Although concerns about over-reliance and safety remain, as Geoff Harper reveals, they are currently being addressed

Approximately the fifth largest mining sector in the world and with a long history of mining, South Africa’s total reserves are worth an estimated US$2.5 trillion. The country has the largest reserves of manganese and platinum group metals (PGMs) in the world and among the largest reserves of gold, diamonds, chromite ore and vanadium. South Africa is also a leader in new technology, such as the conversion of low-grade superfine iron ore into high-quality iron units. Mining creates over one million jobs for South Africans (direct and indirect) and accounts for about 18% of GDP.

About 94% of South Africa’s energy needs are answered by its coal production, the mining of which employs about 90,000 people. South Africa’s Chamber of Mining says that coal is also used as a liquid fuel to power low-income households. Coal mining in South Africa provides jobs and energy while contributing to the country’s GDP.

Diamond reserves, exploited from 1868 and gold from the 1880s, have contributed positively to both the economic development of the embryonic South Africa and two of the conflicts that divided it, the so-called First and Second Boer Wars. However, although divided by conflict the eventual and inevitable result was a unified South Africa.

Recent troubles

Whereas mining is entirely dependent on a global market, which is volatile at the best of times, the South African economy is probably over-reliant on mining. Recent falls in commodity prices from markets such as China have resulted in reductions in output and thousands of job losses in the sector, this year, together with rising prices, demands for wage increases, and industrial unrest.

As a result, the government under President Jacob Zuma has been looking at ways of protecting both industry and the jobs associated with it by bringing mine owners and unions together to agree strategies. Consequently, an agreement has been signed recently, which urges that redundant workers should be given alternative employment and mines in trouble sold rather than their operations suspended entirely.

Safe option

Another enduring concern of the South African mining industry has been safety, although its record has improved radically over the past few years. Over 54,000 mine workers have lost their lives in accidents in South African mines since 1904. However, improvements are ongoing: a target reduction in mining fatalities was introduced by the sector in 2003 to reach figures comparable to Australia, Canada and the USA. From 270 deaths in that year improvement was steady. So in 2007, the total figure was 221, 168 in 2008, 269 in 2009, and 128 in 2010, which was the safest year in South African mining since 2003.

The trend has continued, with 93 deaths in 2013 and 84 deaths in 2014, which had the lowest number of fatalities in South African mines since records began. There has been a staggering 86% improvement on 1993 figures (615). However, accidents in illegal mines continue to pose a problem due to being outside the system and the additional problems of working in disused mine-workings for example.

Legislation has contributed to a drop in accidents. Act 29 of the 1996 Mine Health and Safety Act ensured owner responsibility for health and safety through codes of practise, training, the identification of potential hazards, employment of hygienists, and improved record keeping. It also protected the rights of an employee to withdraw their labour or absent themselves from unsafe or potentially unsafe areas, created the Inspectorate of Mining Health and Safety, and established the Mine Health and Safety Council. Amendments to the act in 1997 continued the good work.

Effective action, however, has taken time and there continues to be a need for proactive intervention in the mining industry to ensure continued progress in the area of safety. President Jacob Zuma commented recently: "We need to vigorously support and entrench a culture of zero harm in this industry. The safety record of our mines has become a central issue that will be placed under the scrutiny of government."

Training and analysis

A huge contribution to mine safety in South Africa is being made by improved and innovative technology, including simulation and training.

As a way of preventing accidents in real-world settings, scientists at the University of Pretoria have produced a virtual reality (VR) centre as a practical contribution toward mine safety. The centre is a first in Africa, offering a mine design centre, a 3D stereoscopic theatre and a 3D 360° 10m-diameter 4.5m-high cylinder. It offers the opportunity to reconstruct any and every mine incident and view it in the 3D stereoscopic theatre as well as the immersive cylinder (both with the use of 3D glasses). Inside, the viewer can be fully immersed in the experience without risk of injury. In this way other senses are drawn into the experience of the incident to enhance learning.

“I recently attended an immersive education conference in France and it was emphasised over and over that the age of immersion has just started, with great potential to enhance learning,” says Professor Ronny Webber-Youngman, PhD, head of the Department of Mining Engineering at the University. An experiment in the USA that involved assessment comparing immersive VR and normal 2D found that after six weeks the group that only experienced the 2D environment remembered 30% of what they learned whereas the VR immersed group remembered everything. “This is a remarkable testimony of the potential impact of VR,” remarks Webber-Youngman.

Mine safety is part of the education at the university. “The mining company Anglo American has an operational risk management programme for all of its senior managers and supervisors. We were given permission to use this material and I have included it as final year module for our students with great success. Safety, health and other risks associated with mines – including finances – are being tackled with our students.”

Webber-Youngman says the nation’s mines have made significant steps in improving safety records. Referring to 2014’s record low in fatalities, he reveals that from January 1, 2015, up to September 7, 2015, there were 52 fatalities compared with 65 fatalities during the same period in 2014, a 20% reduction. “One death is one death too many and we are all doing whatever it takes to ensure zero harm at our mines.”

Fatality and injury rates have been greatly reduced by means of mechanisation in coal mining and other commodities. The future of mining not only in South Africa but also in the rest of the world lies in mechanisation, as productivity and safety related achievements will certainly be enhanced in this way. “I am convinced that immersive education practices have a great role to play in this,” he asserts.

The university intends to increasingly expose its students to the reality of mining risks through the use of VR and in this way encourage them to look at innovative ways to ensure profitable safe productive and healthy mines. “I have challenged all my mining students to become ‘imagineers’; engineers who could imagine engineering solutions for the challenges that we face in the mining industry,” says the professor. He points out that the consequences of poor decision-making can be definitely shown through a VR environment and in this way can be improved at little or no cost.

In spite of the improvements in safety and resulting reductions in mining fatalities, Webber-Youngman is convinced that a new approach in terms of transfer of knowledge should be employed across the industry. “I believe that VR has the potential through immersive experiences to do just that. The Oculus Rift is mobile technology that’s already available to be used to immerse the user in specific situations and environments, which will be become increasingly common practice.  Even rescue training has already been done through VR immersion in Australia. We are already in discussions with Mines Rescue Services in South Africa to explore this further. The age of immersive education has just started and it is important that we as universities should be part of this very exciting period. Zero harm, I believe, is indeed possible.”


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